A Sexular Stage
The stage is now set for a very public divide in evangelicalism around the best pastoral approach to those church participants who are advocates of the Sexular Age, or who find themselves struggling with sexual sins that the wider culture celebrates. And once again it’s been done from a big stage. A very big stage. The North Point church stage of one of the best communicators in the business.
A lot has been said about Andy Stanley’s recent sermon at North Point on sexual practice, particularly homosexual sexual practice, in the church and the pastoral implications of what appears to be a shape-shifting pastoral strategy.
And a lot has been said about it in the context of a big-stage pastor leading the way for what, I suspect, will be the practice of other small-stage pastors grappling with the issue. Stanley has created some oxygen for other lesser-lights to come out and say “Phew, glad someone said it.”
Though having said that, my recent article on a smaller Australian church in Sydney on this issue among evangelicals, shows that the lesser-lights are not waiting around. The heat that particular article generated shows that smaller stages are also on the next stage-coach out of Orthodoxy Town towards the bright lights of the Sexular Age.
And the responses on Facebook in particular, not to mention some of the off-line hard conversations I had to have, indicated that the historically orthodox approach to this matter is train-wrecking people’s lives.
But not so fast, there are serious problems with that approach, both for life in this age, and the age-to-come. Serious theological and pastoral problems. Shipwreck your faith in the New Testament times: Trainwreck it in the 21st century. Both end up in the same place.
A Sexular Strategy
That strategy today seems to be “In private admit that our theological grid does not admit any sexual practice outside marriage, but be affirming publicly for the sake of pastoral care.” In other words a kind of “bait and switch” in which, if we keep people around us long enough, they will eventually realise that the higher calling is to a life of heterosexual monogamy within marriage, or a life of celibate singleness outside marriage.
That’s what Andy Stanley has been looking for – the silver bullet that will (1) affirm the biblical truth about marriage from the front of the stage as a public declaration, yet (2) maintain space for relationships to continue with people who neither affirm, nor indeed practice that.
Of course, the first problem is that this strategy overlooks the “What you attract people with is what you attract them to.” concern. At which point do you tell the people in front of you looking for their gay relationship to be affirmed or celebrated, or looking to be small group leaders, that “Actually no we don’t affirm that, and that really we’ve been taking you for a ride”? It does no honour to either party.
Though what is more likely to happen, sadly, is that over time Stanley and his church will change their private theological grid to align with their public strategy. After all, if this is working, then it must be right. Right?
Which simply means that our biggest problem in modern Western evangelicals is not sexuality, it’s pragmatism. If something works, or seems to work, then it follows that it is a morally superior way of doing things. That’s the default. Outcomes are all that matter. Missional outcomes in particular, whatever that means. The stage was set for this issue to dominate that framework, and here we are.
The term “mission” has been used to cover all sorts of dubious methods and theologies, so much so that we’ve drunk the Kool Aid to the point we no longer can differentiate between success and faithfulness. That this now includes a bait and switch strategy around sexuality simply shows that pragmatism is the real winner here.
The second problem, of course, is -as I said – that this approach it is not particularly honest. Why affirm something privately that you can’t uphold publicly? Have some intestinal fortitude and stop halting between two opinions man!
It would seem the history of the church is littered with the spiritual corpses of those who wanted it both ways. Stanley is seeking comfort for himself and for others, but in the end will provide neither. This tension cannot hold.
And that’s not the only dishonest aspect of it. When Andy Stanley argues against Al Mohler that Mohler’s theology draws lines, while Jesus draws circles, then he must be forgetting what are the most confronting statements by Jesus, statements that keep me scurrying back to him when tempted by sin:
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
The only circle I’m drawing at that point is the circle around my eye with a black felt-tip pen right before I get the er, Stanley knife, to gouge it out. Jesus drew lines all of the time, lines in the sand of my own life that challenge and dismay me, and leave with me no hope at all outside his saving, powerful grace.
The best, and pithiest, writing on this is, once again, Carl Trueman’s observations in Catholic journal First Things. Now Carl can be crusty at times, I admit that, but one thing I admire about his writing in this space in particular, is his refusal to go all ad hominem on people.
Trueman points out that the ultimate failure is not the pastoral failure. He sees that pastoral failure as the presenting issue of a much bigger failure, namely the dreadful lack of a truly biblical anthropology in the modern church. And of course it’s lacking, cos ain’t nobody got time for that when, as I said “the mission” is apparently at stake. Yet wasn’t that same misguided concern that has ushered in the downfall of the mainline denominations? The only mission many of them seem to be on is who can stay open the longest before the last person leaves.
But our lack of a biblical anthropology is failing us at exactly the time that an alternate anthropology is both threatening our people, and wooing them at one and the same time. Trueman observes:
The anthropology of modern Western society is fundamentally incompatible with a Christian doctrine of man. Failure to see this and then try to argue that codes of sexual morality are negotiable and can be subordinated to pastoral strategies of love and affirmation is to contradict central tenets of the Christian faith.
But it’s not just about preference in our modern world. It’s not just Mac and Cheese versus Cordon Bleu. It’s as dire as needing a change of operating system. It”s Mac versus Windows. And that’s much harder to turn around. As Alan Noble puts it in his book You Are Not Your Own:
If everyone in America suddenly acknowledged that they are not their own but belong to God, we would still be left with systems, institutions, practices, and tools that are designed for the sovereign self, and it wouldn’t take long before we found ourselves right back where we started. We cannot evangelize our way out of this problem. We cannot volunteer our way out. We need a miracle. Our desire for a program of self-improvement, a personal method of accepting that you are not your own, is itself a symptom of the problem. We believe we can use technique to solve the problems of a society governed by technique—but as we’ve discovered, that does not work.
So the two positions are incompatible. But the likes of Andy Stanley et al will die trying to put them together. And usher in the spiritual death of those they attempt to woo with their supposedly kinder, gentler approach to this matter. You should read Trueman’s article in full.
A Sexular Failure
Perhaps the best – and certainly the most impactful – response to this issue comes from the admirable Sam Allberry who, in writing in Christianity Today, stated:
But to accept that a biblically prohibited relationship is permissible—or the least-bad way forward—is to contradict the biblical sexual ethic Stanley affirmed in this very sermon. I have always been single. On the whole, it has been deeply joyous. But I am not immune from temptation, and when any leader suggests to me that chaste obedience to Christ in singleness is not sustainable, he is saying the very same thing to me that the Devil says.
Now Allberry has walked the walk, so let’s allow him to talk the talk in a way that Stanley cannot. In short, what Stanley is admitting is that this promise in Scripture is not true:
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4)
And Allberry goes on to make the most profound of pastoral implications, one that every leader and every believer should take seriously about every unguarded or coddled sin in their own lives: Eternity is at stake!
The pastoral implications of eternity fell off the radar of so much modern evangelicalism long before the latest sexuality issues came to the fore. Six sermons on financial success, or five sermons on a happy marriage, don’t really tell me too much about what I must be prepared to do in order to spend eternity in the presence of the one true Being who will fulfil all of my desires.
As Allberry rightly points out, this pastoral failure will be taken very seriously by King Jesus, not only in terms of Stanley’s stated position when he gave the reasons for platforming affirming, gay men at his recent conference, but in terms of the North Point Church in tolerating it:
This means that the problem at the Unconditional Conference is not just that inappropriate speakers were platformed or that Stanley gave (at best) mixed messaging about sexual sin. North Point as a whole is implicated. If the church continues to tolerate such things, it invites the censure of Christ himself.
Perhaps that brings us back full circle to the anthropological issue that Trueman picks up: If the chief end of a human is self-fulfilment then, sadly, much evangelical preaching is on (north) point. But if the chief end of a human is the glory of God, and the enjoyment of God in the context of that, then my personal practice must be to first name, and then put off every sin that so easily entangles, and my public platform must be used to call all others to do the same. For the sake of eternity!
That’s why Allberry finishes his article with this flourish:
Disobedience does not only fail God; it fails his people. It is not only a lack of discipleship; it is a lack of love for others. To love young people wrestling with homosexuality and to love their parents requires obedience to God. Only then can we point others to the one who is love incarnate, in whom alone is found true life.
Which, I admit, is extremely hard to do in the context of a Sexular Age in which “love is love” and the refusal to accept all consenting adult relationships is seen as bigotry and hate. That’s Alan Noble’s point: all of the cultural hardware is geared against a biblical anthropology.
It’s hard enough trying to explain what I believe about marriage to my non-Christian half-brother to whom I am very close. But in one sense that’s easy. Here’s what’s hard: The conga line of parents asking me difficult pastoral questions about this matter every time I speak about it at a church or conference. It’s not something I take lightly at all, as I listen to their pain and their confusion. And yes, their love for their children. It’s not as if Stanley feels the tension of this and I don’t. But I’m not going to offer snake oil instead of medicine.
It will be hard to stand up against the flood, especially if you’re a young person or a young ministry leader, over the next thirty years, but do it anyway! And even more so, if you are someone wrestling with same sex issues (or any sexual matter in this Sexular Age). But, once again, do it anyway! Oh, and there’s a heap of us older people who’ve got your back. No public spotlight on any stage is more important, or more confronting, than the spotlight of the Last Day, or the stage you stand on before King Jesus.
The Sexular Stage is set. How will we act upon it?